The Three Metal Ages of Queensrÿche
And some slag
Legendary progressive heavy metal band Queensrÿche released Digital Noise Alliance on October 7. It’s the most recent album in a discography spanning numerous lineup changes, notable changes in style and three metal ages: Golden, Silver and Bronze. Golden Ages are golden for a reason. They’re when everything seemed to be flawless. However, I’m one of those who believes Queensrÿche’s subsequent discography is also strong — albeit with some slag.
The Golden Age
The Golden Age of Queensrÿche lasted slightly over a decade. During this time, the lineup consisted of Geoff Tate (vocals), Chris DeGarmo (guitar), Michael Wilton (guitar), Eddie Jackson (bass) and Scott Rockenfield (drums). In Deep Purple terms, that was the Mark I lineup, and in Moody Blues terms, that was when they released their “core” six albums. Something about certain bands encourages a focus on quintessence, and this era is the quintessence of Queensrÿche.
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The band’s first releases were its heaviest. The self-titled EP (1983) and following album The Warning (1984) established the band’s traits. The hard rock is going on metal, the prog is restrained. Meanwhile, Tate hits E5 like his soul is rooted there and he occasionally needs to transcend. Above all, there are concepts and drama. While neither is a complete narrative, I’ve always heard in The Warning a story about a messianic child staving off an invasion by machines from outer space and in Rage for Order (1986) a romance of forbidden love between human and robot. As excellent as these releases are, however, the band was still developing its craft.
Perfection struck with Operation: Mindcrime (1988). The story is about Nikki, a man so disaffected with society that he enlists with a revolutionary named Dr. X who keeps him on drugs, gets him to carry out high-profile assassinations, and involves him with another victim named Sister Mary, a whore turned nun. What raises the album above all rivals is the seamless blend of vein-popping music with a complete and comprehensible narrative. King Diamond’s Abigail (1987), Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988), W.A.S.P.’s The Crimson Idol (1992)? No, Operation: Mindcrime is the best heavy metal concept album.
Nonetheless, Empire (1990) is the one with the hits. The most familiar is the ballad “Silent Lucidity.” While casual music fans may not remember, however, “Empire,” “Best I Can” and “Jet City Woman” were also all over the airwaves. To metal and prog, Empire added radio-friendliness — such as it was when bands like Slaughter, Metallica and Pearl Jam were making glam, thrash and grunge the youth’s musica franca — albeit at the expense of an overarching concept or story. The Recording Industry Association of America reports Empire as going triple platinum.
For a long time, the original lineup could do no wrong. Promised Land (1994), with its more subdued style and exploration of identity from ego formation in the cradle to abandonment in the nursing home, didn’t have as much impact, but it too shows consummate vision and musicianship. Hell, even “Real World” on the Last Action Hero soundtrack (1993) is an oft-overlooked but must-listen track. Yet every Golden Age must come to an end, and every astounding feat of pyrometallurgy is bound to come with some slag.
Hear in the Now Frontier (1997) was Queensrÿche’s first bad album. The band shifted toward alternative rock and lead guitarist and principal songwriter Chris DeGarmo was on his way out the door for a career as an airline pilot, as reported by Billboard. The resulting album is so awkward that I always get a few tracks in and can’t take it anymore. Q2K (1999), however, refined the new sound into a more cohesive album, and the 2006 reissue bonus track “Until There Was You” has become one of my favorite deep cuts.
The Silver Age
It took the return of DeGarmo to initiate the Silver Age of Queensrÿche. His presence is immediately felt on Tribe (2003), bending the band’s newer style back toward its previous glory. The way his guitar slurs through much of “Falling Behind” is simple but genius, Rockenfield shines throughout with proggy and tribal contrapfections, and Tate’s lyrics are among his most spiritual, touching on God, nature and the oneness of humanity. Tribe isn’t a top-tier album, but it is the sound of a band feeling its way toward renewed greatness.
That greatness came with Operation: Mindcrime II (2006). DeGarmo has taken flight again, but Pamela Moore returns as Sister Mary and Ronnie James Dio is an unimpeachable replacement for English actor Anthony Valentine as Father X. Tate’s lyrics evoke the seedy atmosphere of the original, the story charges ahead, and the band sounds invigorated — even if it wasn’t. The word, according to Blabbermouth, is that Tate and other band members were feuding, resulting in hired guns recording much of the album. Nonetheless, I’ve always found Mindcrime II to be a worthy successor to the original.
After the slag cover album Take Cover (2007), the band went back to concepts with American Soldier (2009). Tate conceived the album around interviews he conducted with American veterans from World War II through the Iraq War, including his father. Clips from these interviews on the album provide a poignant glimpse into the heart of the music. The penultimate track features Tate on sax and his daughter Emily on vocals, with lyrics that overlap being on tour in war with being on tour as a musician. Queensrÿche had made a magnificent comeback, but more slag was on the way.
The Silver Age ended in another dud. Dedicated to Chaos (2011) is a weird fusion of styles, something like “lounge metal.” Tate’s lyrics are the worst, and there isn’t a hint of anything tough enough to merit the album’s promising title (to paraphrase a friend). Having said that, I appreciate the pronounced presence of Eddie Jackson’s bass, and if you keep an open mind, half of the tracks add up to a decent playlist. It may be telling, however, that the band had a nasty split soon after this release.
The Bronze Age
That split is why we now enjoy the Bronze Age of Queensrÿche. Before losing rights to the Queensrÿche name, Tate scrambled some musicians and released Frequency Unknown (2013), a roundly abused album that maybe isn’t that bad. Meanwhile, the rest of the band recruited former Crimson Glory vocalist Todd La Torre, toured with a focus on Golden Age material, and redebuted with Queensrÿche (2013). The production is tinny and crowded, but fans once again got music they could recognize as Queensrÿche.
Queensrÿche owes much of the success of this age to La Torre. The man is a wonder of musicianship. He has Tate’s range and even sounds like Tate at times in tone and mannerism. Not since Van Halen’s 5150 (1986) has a band replaced an icon and come out sounding more comparison than contrast. La Torre is also a drummer, a drummer good enough to step in and record, which he did when Rockenfield took time off to raise his son (Blabbermouth). Oh, and Rejoice in the Suffering, his solo album with longtime friend Craig Blackwell, was one of the best albums of 2021. Great bands need talent of this caliber.
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Queensrÿche has since released three albums. On Condition Hüman (2015), the new lineup sounds more comfortable and the production has improved. The Verdict (2019), with its overtly metal cover art, had me expecting the heaviest Queensrÿche album since The Warning, but this was not to be. It peaks at track two, holds on a little longer, then stops interesting. The general sound is there, so I can’t explain it. I’m pleased to report, however, that Digital Noise Alliance (2022) is more engaging.
Will there be more Bronze Age albums? Will there be an Iron Age? Will there be more slag? That last is unlikely. Ever since La Torre joined, the band has been on a declared mission to make sure it never happens. Whatever comes next, I will be there for that album.
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